Book Review: Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier
By Michael Ableman, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016
Review by Sally Luce
In this remarkable book, farmer/activist Michael Ableman tells the captivating story of the creation of Sole Food, a community farm started in 2009 in the parking lot of the Astoria Hotel in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Sole Food’s aims are to provide meaningful employment for the area’s hard-to-employ residents and to operate a commercially viable farm.
This book is a must-read for anyone wishing to start a similar project. It is also a truly engaging and inspiring read for all those interested in farming, community development or improving the lives of those struggling with addiction and mental health issues.
Ableman pulls the reader into the challenges of the project with a gritty description of the Astoria’s neighbourhood and its residents’ social challenges. The hotel provides cheap housing for active substance users, sex workers, and people with mental health challenges. (photo on p.3)
To get the project off the ground they had to:
• convince the city and developers to lease land for a token amount of money
• solicit cash donations of $2 million
• work with city regulations and by-laws never intended to support a commercial farm
• successfully farm in containers on contaminated land
• train and work with employees struggling with addiction and mental health challenges
• market the farm’s high end crops to local chefs and residents
• expand and sustain the farm in the face of landowners’ shifting priorities.
Sole Food eventually developed three other sites including an orchard grown in containers on a strip of land between two busy roads (photo on p.62). Others sites were in an industrial park (photo on p.56) and on unused city land beside an overhead highway. (photo on p.224 and p.226)
The book’s Appendix, entitled Farming Principles and Practices, summarizes many of the points made throughout the book about farming in containers and marketing the produce.
The heart of the book, however, is the effect of the project on the street people hired to work at the farm. After several years a team from Queen’s University assessed the social benefits of the project. They found for every dollar spent in employing local residents: “$1.70 combined savings to the prison and legal system, the health care system, the social assistance networks, and the environment through carbon sequestration and the energy and transportation benefits of that our über-local farming system provided.” (p.27)
Ableman realistically does not see himself as a social worker but as providing an opportunity for employees to experience meaningful work planting, harvesting, and selling produce. He did, however, need to develop different training techniques to help employees become more efficient: “I quickly learned that it could take two to three times longer for our crew to transplant chard or harvest a pound of salad or cultivate a bed of spinach than it might on another of the farms I’ve worked on.” (p.25)
The chapter called “Farmily” is taken from the name given by Nova, a meth addict, to the community of employees created by the project. Her work at Sole Food transformed her life. Ableman describes her as she works at a farmers’ market: “This young woman who used to spend her days on the street panhandling, whose anxiety around people was palpable, now smiles and carries on comfortable and confident conversation with total strangers… She is now clean. She says she is very strong into her sobriety. And she finds herself feeling more and more grounded as the years go on.” (p.129)
Ultimately, the book is a sharing of wisdom, the joys of bringing farm life to the city and the transformation of people’s lives. Ableman’s well written text is significantly augmented by his striking photos of the people who work for the farm, the beds of bright vegetables and the lush fruit trees in stark urban settings.